Don’t Fall Asleep: An Open Letter to Myself on the Day We Saved Democracy from Its Latest Threat

I wrote these thoughts in my journal yesterday morning, before the election had been called. And I’m glad I wrote them before I was swept up in the euphoria of the day. One of my neighbors said, “it feels like a war just ended.” She was right in so many ways. Euphoria aside, anyone who knows anything about war knows that wars start long before they are declared and they do not end with a peace declaration. Sometimes the worst kind of violence occurs after the war is over, when the world is looking the other way. And rebuilding is not just hard, but full of peril.

I find myself wishing I could get excited by Joe. I wish I could get excited because it would be cathartic, relaxing even, in an odd way. Instead I am doubly exhausted: worn out by waiting for the results, as we all are, and exhausted from the knowledge of the work we still have to do after the election is called. And there is just so much work to do.

A Biden presidency means we have to keep going, we have to figure out what is up with this country and how we got here and we have push even harder. We have to do this because the survival of the country depends on it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the 80s and 90s. I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War. This was an era of soothing leaders. Both Reagan and Clinton had a  calming effect. They were crooners. They sang us to sleep and told us everyone was ok.

But while we were being lulled to sleep, a lot happened. The Cold War ended, and we celebrated the victory while the rest of the world cracked apart and tried to put itself back together. “Trickle-down” economics became the law of the land while all the wealth rose like an unstoppable geyser to a few rich people. It became normal to blame poor for their poverty. Homelessness exploded. The war on drugs, which was really a war on black and brown people, was declared. We built walls around wealth and demonized black and brown men and put a system of mass incarceration in place that has destroyed lives and communities. We barely talked about the climate back then, but we knew what we were doing. The environmentalists were very fringy. So was anyone who raised the issue of the brutal violence the US supported and promoted in Latin America and around the world.

We looked the other way while Ronald Reagan crooned in his movie star voice. And Bill Clinton lilted in his Arkansas drawl. Moving into the 2000’s, Bush II crooned to us right through 9-11 and into a state of permawar. He soothed us so well that we almost destroyed the economy, a near destruction that many have never recovered from. Obama elevated the tradition of soothing to an art form.  “Hope” he said. “Believe. I am hope.” The only problem was that while half of us heard pure poetry come out of his mouth, half of the country could only hear him chanting in a foreign language.

Joe is showing signs of being a pretty good crooner too.

The problem is that you don’t want someone to sing you a lullaby when the house is on fire. And the house has been on fire for a long time.

Half of the country just voted for the guy who poured four years of gasoline on that fire and tossed some dynamite in for added fun. Why would they burn their house down?

I suspect some of them took out large insurances policies on that house. I suspect some of them placed large bets on how fast the house would burn down. There are people waiting to exploit the refugees who flee from the burning rafters. Someone will make money off the burning house.

I also suspect that some people are just desperate for something—anything—different. They know the heat and plumbing stopped working ages ago. The roof is leaking, it is missing half of its windows, and the fridge is empty. The house is truly in bad shape. We hear about how much middle class is struggling. We feel it every day. But we have almost completely erased the poor. We don’t even talk about their struggles anymore.

Maybe it’s so bad in that house that half of its residents just said, “Fuck it. Burn it down. What rises from the ashes will be better.”

Everyone inside is so stressed out that they are at each other’s throats all the time. The white supremacists whose ancestors built the house seem ready to burn it down. They are more organized than ever. Their reach is far and they prey on our children. If the fire fueled hate, the ashes will be fertile soil for the new crop they are planting.

It takes courage, and a lot of energy, to look at that fire and see what’s going on in there, to do the work to put it out and to repair the house.

During the crooning eighties, I have distinct memories of sitting in a Social Studies class and learning about the architecture of the house—the branches of government, the checks and balances on power, and why they designed it the way they did. The architecture is certainly flawed—it was designed to sustain wealthy white men. But they built in some safeguards.

They gave us the tools to radically renovate the house and to make it stronger. We can change it. We can amend the constitution, abolish the electoral college, change the rules of how the Supreme Court works, end gerrymandering, and more. We can use the States’ Rights to make states right. We can realize that big things happen at the local level.

It takes time. It takes energy. It takes not being lulled to sleep and trusting that the soothing man in the White House will take care of it for us. It will take keeping up the level of fight we have kept up for the last four years. So I say this to myself as much as anyone: beware of the crooners. They will soothe you and sing you a good lullaby.  That’s a big part of their job. But do we really want to sleep in a burning house?

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